Eight days before Gerald R. Ford became president of the United States, Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., Richard M. Nixon's chief of staff, broached to Ford a troubling possibility.Haig listed the options available to Nixon, including "an agreement" that Nixon would resign the presidency if Ford agreed to give him a pardon. What, Haig asked, did Ford recommend?
That was Aug. 1, 1974. The next day brought near panic for three men close to Ford. Robert Hartmann, one of those aides, has described the anxiety vividly in his memoirs.
Hartmann, former congressman Jack Marsh and Bryce Harlow, three of Ford's most intimate political associates, agreed that day that Haig had done something that might endanger Ford by discussing with him the possibility of a pardon for Nixon. Hartmann felt Haig was guilty of a "monstrous impropriety." These three men shared their anxiety with Ford on the afternoon of the 2nd.
By Ford's own account (a little-noted revelation in his memoirs), Haig had told him on Aug. 1 that unnamed persons "on Nixon's staff" had said that "Nixon could agree to leave [office] in return for an agreement that the new president -- Gerald Ford -- would pardon him." In other words, as Ford described the conversation in his book. Haig had mentioned the possibility of a quid pro quo -- a resignation for a pardon.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Ford did pardon Nixon for any crimes he may have committed in office, raising the question of whether there had been a secret Nixon-Ford agreement. When Haig faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next month in confirmation hearings on his nomination to be secretary of state, the question may become, was Haig offering Ford the presidency in return for a pardon for his boss?
At that meeting on Aug. 2, 1974, Harlow told Ford: "There must not be any cause for anyone to cry 'deal' . . . . The most urgent thing, Mr. Vice President, is to tell Al Haig straight out and unequivocally that whatever discussions you and he had yesterday . . . were purely hypothetical and conversational, that you will in no manner, affirmatively or negatively, advise him or the president as to his future course . . . ."
It was a stern lecture, but it worked. Ford got his aides' message that any arrangement involving a pardon for Nixon in return for his resignation could destroy his presidency before it began.
Ford picked up the telephone and called Haig at once. "I want you to understand," Ford said, according to his memoirs, "that I have no intention of recomending what the president should do about resigning or not resigning and that nothing we talked about yesterday afternoon should be given any consideration in whatever decision the president may wish to make."
"You're right," Haig replied, ending the conversation.
Ten weeks later, after Nixon had resigned and after Ford had pardoned him, the new president went to Capitol Hill to testify on whether the two men had made a deal. Ford testified emphatically that they had not. However, no one asked Ford specifically that day if a deal had been offered.
Ford's testimony to a House sub-committee on Oct. 17, 1974, provided the first account of his dealings with Haig on Aug. 1. Haig, Ford said then, told him he had to be ready to assume the presidency quickly, because a newly uncovered White House toape would destroy Nixon's impeachment defense. Haig, Ford testified, asked for Ford's recommendations "on the various courses of action as well as my attitude on the options of resignation. vHowever, he [Haig] indicated he was not advocating any of the options."
Haig laid out six options, only one of which would have required any action on Ford's part. As Ford described it in his congressional testimony, Haig said that sixth option was "a pardon to the president [Nixon] himself, should he resign."
On page 4 of his 1979 autobiography, A Time To Heal , Ford elaborates substantially on what he told the House subcommittee in 1974. In the book, Ford describes Haig's sixth option like this: "Finally, Haig said that according to some on Nixon's White House staff, Nixon could agree to leave [office] in return for an agreement that the new president -- Gerald Ford -- would pardon him."
It was this passage in Ford's memoirs that prompted Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), the Republican leader in the Senate, to caution President-elect Ronald Reagan three weeks ago that nominating Haig for secretary of state could produce a contentious confirmation process for Nixon's former chief of staff.
Ford's House testimony in 1974 was hastily prepared in the White House. Haig has said since that he helped to prepare it (he was still working in the White House at the time). Ford's book was the product of detailed research, interviews conducted by a ghost writer who helped the former president, and a careful drafting process in which many of Ford's White House aides were consulted. According to knowledgeable sources, the crucial passage on page 4 was drafted to be consistent with the House testimony, but also to provide a more complete account of Ford's dealings with Haig on Aug. 1.
Ford's memoir, Nixon's RN and Hartmann's 1980 book, Palace Politics, An Inside Account of the Ford Years , all add new information to the version of these events that Ford gave in his House testimony. None of them contradict Ford's assurance that he made no deal with Nixon. But taken together they do provide a chronology of events that could be the basis for previously unanswered questions to Haig in his confirmation hearings. (Haig has never been asked to testify on these events.)
Here is a breif account of the events surrounding Nixon's resignation drawn from these sources:
According to his memoirs, Nixon first decided to resign on Aug. 1, eight days before he actually did step down. "On Thursday, August 1, I told Haig I had decided to resign. If the June 23 tape [the notorious "smoking gun"] was not explainable, I could not very well expect the staff to try to explain and defend it."
Nixon told Haig he planned to resign in a televised speech the following Monday, the 5th. "Haig said that we could work out the arrangements however I wanted, bvut he suggested that I resign even sooner, perhaps the next night, Friday, August 2. Since the June 23 tape was in the group to be handed over th Judge [John] Sirica that morning, Haig thought that I should have resigned and been gone from the scene before the tape surfaced publicly. By that time, he said, so much attention would be focused on the new president that the damaging impact ofc the tape might be muted.
"I decided to think about it . . . . I also asked Haig to see Jerry Ford and tell him that I was thinking of resigning, without indicating when. I said Haig should ask him to be prepared to take over sometime within the next few days . . . ."
Shortly after noon on the 1st, Haig telephoned Ford in the vice president's office in the Capitol. The two men had already met that morning, in the presence of Hartmann, and Haig had warned Ford that he had to be ready to assume the presidency. Ford has written that Haig "seemed surprised" by Hartmann's presence, "and I had the impression that he didn't feel he could be as forthright as he might normally have been."
At Haig's request, he and Ford were along at their second meeting of the day. It was then that Haig listed for Ford six options open to Nixon, a list prepared by White House lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt at Nixon's request. Buzhardt told reporters before his death that his sixth option was that Nixon could resign and "hope" for a pardon from his successor. But by Ford's account this became an explicit "agreement" about a resignation in return for a pardon when Haig outlined it to the vice president. Nixon's other options, according to Haig, ranged from riding out an impeachment trial in the Senate to pardoning himself and everyone else in Watergate and then resigning.
The record raises questions about just what was said on Aug. 1. Nixon writes that he told Haig that morning that he had decided to resign. However, according to Ford's recollections, Haig gave no hint of that when he met with the vice president for the second time that day. While warning Ford that he had to be ready to assume the presidency soon, Haig also portrayed Nixon as still being in a fighting mood, dismissing the smoking gun tape as "manageable."
According to Ford's book, Haig "asked if I had any suggestions as to the courses of action for the president. I didn't think it would be proper for me to make any recommendations at all, and I told him so. Because of his references to pardon authority, I did ask Haig about the extent of a president's pardon power.
"'It's my understanding from a White House lawyer,' Haig replied, 'that a president does have the authority to grant a pardon even before criminal action has been taken against an individual.' He didn't name the lawyer."
Ford writes that after Haig left that meeting, he told his aide Hartmann what had transpired.
"As I repeated the options that Haig had listed for me," Ford wrote of this conversation with Hartmann, "warning bells seemed to go off inside his head. 'That's why you should have had a witness there,' he said . . . . 'That last option Haig mentioned, that Nixon resign in return for an agreement that he receive a pardon from the new president. I don't like that at all.'
"'But Bob,' I replied, 'Al wasn't suggesting that. It was just one of the ideas that he said were being kicked around by people at the White House.'
"'I know, I know [Hartmann replied]. But Haig didn't come over here to go away empty-handed. And he didn't discuss this delicate matter without Nixon's knowing about it. And he mentioned the pardon option, and you sat there listening to him. Well, silence implies assent. He probably went back to the White House and told Nixon that he'd mentioned the idea and that you weren't uncomfortable with it. It was extremely improper for him to bring the subject up."
Ford writes that he told Hartmann he was "making a mountain out of a molehill."
But that night Haig and Ford had a telephone conversation that is a matter of dispute between Ford and his longtime aide, Hartmann. Ford's book says Haig called the vice president at about 1:30 a.m. on the night of Aug. 1-2 and said: "Nothing has changed. The situation is as fluid as ever."
Ford writes that he replied: "Well, I've talked with Betty [his wife], and we're prepared, but we can't get involved in the White House decision-making process."
Hartmann, however, writes that Ford gave him a substantially different description of this call the next morning. This is Hartmann's account of what Ford told him:
"Betty and I talked it over last night . . . . We felt we were ready. This just has to stop; it's tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called Al Haig and told him they should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me."
Hartmann, writing after the publication of Ford's memoirs, acknowledges the discrepancy between his and Ford's accounts of that phone call. "Memories are fallible," Hartmann writes in a footnote, "but I know what most upset me was the fact that Ford had called Haig. Why would Haig telephone the vice president at 1:30 a.m. just to say nothing had changed? And why, if Ford informed Haig that night that 'we can't get involved,' did he have to go through it all over again the next day for Harlow, Marsh and me?"
This is a reference to the sequence of events that followed the next day, Aug. 2. Ford briefed Marsh that morning on his dealing with Haig since the previous day, and Marsh agreed with Hartmann, Ford writes, "that the mere mention of the pardon option constituted a potential time-bomb for me. I explained that Haig was not suggesting a deal, that these options hadn't even originated with him, that I had said nothing to signal approval or disapproval of them."
Ford then turned to Bryce Harlow, a trusted friend, and reviewed the same events with him. Harlow too, Ford writes, "let me know in no uncertain terms that he agreed . . . that the mere mention of the pardon option could cause a lot of trouble in the days ahead.
"We agreed that the only thing I [Ford] could do would be to call Haig in the presence of witnesses and button this thing down. Minutes later, Haig was on the line. I had written out in longhand what I wanted to say to him, and I read it slowly so that there could be no ambiguities. 'I want you to understand,' I said, 'that I have no intention of recommending what the president should do about resigning . . . ."
It was that phone call, already quoted above, that Hartmann thought would have been superfluous if Ford really had told Haig by phone in the middle of the previous night that "we can't get involved in the White House decision-making process." Hartmann's book suggests that instead, Ford may have said something indiscreet to Haig in that phone conversation. "God knows what they'd said to make matters worse," writes Hartmann.
Little is known about Haig's contacts with Nixon between the time of his resignation and Sept. 7, when Ford pardoned him, and about his advice to Ford during the same period, when he was the new president's acting chief of staff. Haig has nver been asked to testify in these matters, and Ford has touched on them only briefly.
Ford writes in his memoirs that when he did begin to consider granting a pardon to Nixon, he consulted with several aides, including Haig. "Haig was for it," Ford writes, "although he never flatly said as much. He laid out the pros and cons, then stepped back and said, 'It's your decision, sir.'"
At the same time, Ford asked Marsh what he thought about the pardon, and Marsh quickly recalled the Aug. 1 Ford-Haig exchanges: "Look, both of us know about the meeting with Haig . . . the meeting where he discussed a pardon as one of several options available at the time. Although you and I understand the two are not related, will people try to connect them?"
According to his memoirs, Ford replied: "Maybe they will, but we both know the facts."
Ford was referring to the facts about his motivation in granting Nixon a pardon, not to Haig's motivation in initially raising the option of a pardon "agreement."
Haig's many admirers have long insisted that the general's actions in the final days of the Nixon presidency were only intended to achieve a smooth transition of power from a discredited chief executive to his successor while avoiding any constitutional crises.